Something is seriously screwed up in the way Americans vote for their presidential nominees.
Whether it’s because this campaign is a tight race for the first time in a while or something else, the byzantine ins and outs of the American election system have never been clearer and more frustrating than they are in 2008.
We’ve seen the two parties ridiculously kowtowing to Iowa and New Hampshire by stripping Florida and Michigan of delegates for leap-frogging those early states’ votes (and Hillary Clinton’s equally ridiculous, retroactive attempt to claim those delegates despite having already agreed to said kowtowing). And Barack Obama getting more delegates in Nevada than Clinton despite getting a smaller share of the vote. And the odd prevalence of caucuses. And Louisiana’s weird rules negating Mike Huckabee’s win on Saturday. And Texas’ upcoming primary/caucus hybrid. And the inexplicable “superdelegates.” And news of 49,500 ballots in Los Angeles County that can’t be counted because they were too confusing and were marked incorrectly. (This is all separate from the GOP’s usual obsession with voter ID laws, “voter fraud,” and other attempts to generally suppress voting.)
And then Washington state’s GOP chair unilaterally stopped Saturday’s vote count and declared John McCain the winner — despite 13 percent, or about 1,500 votes, left to be counted and fewer than 300 votes separating McCain and Huckabee. He has since grudgingly continued the count, but it’s not an effort I’d trust if I were a candidate.
This Washington state business seems to be more a function of one man’s (or one party’s) shenanigans rather than part of the systemic weirdness. But this video (courtesy of Talkingpointsmemo) of Huckabee comparing the aborted counting to a Soviet “election,” makes clear that this episode is emblematic of how messed up our election system has seemed since the 2000 Florida debacle.
There may not be brazenly antidemocratic, well-connected party bosses in every state. But the confusing electoral process behind which the Washington GOP boss thought he could hide is widespread. Here’s how the Seattle Times describes the Washington caucus (as flagged by TPM’s Paul Kiel):
Due to the way Republicans select their delegates, the results could bear little resemblance to the presidential preferences of the 40 Washington state delegates ultimately sent to the GOP national convention in September.”Nobody won or lost anything on Saturday,” said Vance, now a public affairs consultant and McCain supporter. “But every other state had been able to report a ‘winner,’ so there was expected there would be a ‘winner’ in Washington state.”
Here, the number of delegates elected at precinct caucuses means very little in terms of which candidate will ultimately get the most delegates heading into the national convention, he said. Delegates are “unbound free agents,” who are not required to vote for one candidate over another. They can tell people whom they’re supporting, but they can also change their minds, Vance said. Also, the roughly 16,700 delegates elected at Saturday’s precinct caucuses will be winnowed down at legislative district caucuses and county conventions. Those remaining will go to the state convention, where only 18 of them will be chosen — two from each of the state’s nine Congressional districts — to go on to the national convention.
This is absurd. All the caucuses are absurd. The national and state parties and the cronies who run and staff them are doing nothing less than hijacking the Democratic process.
According to this Slate column, all of the above (excepting the Washington vote stoppage, but including the Washington caucus rules) is legal. The political parties can make their own rules for the nominating process (short of some egregious exceptions involving race). But that doesn’t make the parties’ actions right. They’re certainly violating the spirit of “one person, one vote.”
I don’t expect the candidates to grapple with the election system when they’re in the middle of it (except for Hillary Clinton, who has managed the feat of embracing the silencing of Florida and Michigan voters and then acting like she won real races in those states, while simultaneously bad-mouthing contests she views as undemocratic or sexist simply because voters didn’t pick her or were, um, black).
But it would be nice — especially if Barack “Change, Not Danger, Is My Middle Name” Obama or John “I’m A Straight Talker ‘Cause The Press Says So” McCain ultimately wins — if our next president embraced serious election reform as an important step in that fabled and perpetually promised healing of America.
In many ways the system is not set up to actually enable the electorate to vote. Both major parties could easily enact major changes if they really wanted people to vote. Since they don’t, we have such democratic innovations as elections limited to certain hours on a single weekday, and winner-take-all elections in all but two states in which everyone who votes for losing candidates gets shut out completely. These obvious problems have obvious solutions, but few backers. We’ll know we have a system that cares about enfranchisement and fairness when the winner of a close election demands a recount. I’m still waiting.
Viva instant-runoff voting!!